Education as Conversation

This essay was a third place winner in FIRE’s 2012 Essay Contest.

By Asheshananda Rambachan

Discussion and dialogue provide the foundation of human knowledge. Throughout history, we have made the most progress when we are able to freely interact with one another, challenge old paradigms and interrogate new ideas. Ancient texts, ranging from the Upanishads to Plato’s Dialogues, were written as dialogues between teachers and students. Thousands of years later, a budding intellectual community that traded new discoveries about science, literature and art catalyzed the Renaissance. Hundreds of years later, the salon, a place where members of bourgeoisie gathered to discuss the works of Locke, Newton, and Voltaire, defined Europe during the Enlightenment. Today, no publication is credible until it has been peer-reviewed. Teams of scientists staff laboratories around the world. More and more classes, in high schools and colleges, are structured as seminars.

It is clear, from an examination of human history, that without discussion, argument, and most importantly dissent, we cannot grow and develop intellectually. Colleges and universities, therefore, have a vital interest to protect and promote an environment that is conducive to debate. These institutions aim to educate young adults into becoming citizens capable of critical thinking. Today, colleges and universities have the additional responsibility of preparing their students to compete and function in an increasingly globalized world. None of these purposes can be achieved without free speech.

In a functioning democracy, it is essential that students be taught to hold their leaders accountable. Today, it seems that we have a government that is not responsive to the needs and concerns of the average citizen. Our political leaders appear to be beholden to lobbyists and special interest groups. However, we share part of the blame for this problem. Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University, bluntly states in The Price of Civilization “Americans have elected their leaders” and fail to hold them to high standards once in office. Unless students are taught to challenge abuses of authority, we will never be able to break out of this brand of politics.

Free speech on college campuses is needed to accomplish this end. Actions by college administrations to stifle criticism and dissent send a destructive message to students. A particularly egregious example occurred at Valdosta State University, in which a student was expelled for criticizing a decision to spend $40 million on a pair of parking garages. The message that the administration of Valdosta State University sent to the student body was that students did not have a voice. It told them that they were powerless to change their community.

The long-term effects of such messages are enormous. The college a person attends is an integral part of his or her identity. Alumni obsessively follow the football team and proudly wear their alma mater’s colors. If students are told that they cannot change this intimate community, how can they possibly believe that they can impact local, state-level or national politics? Actions like the one at Valdosta State University breed apathy and cynicism at a young age. Speech codes, like the one at Colorado College that outlaw speech that “embarrasses,” can be twisted to silence dissent. Stifling free speech, including free criticism of campus authorities, stunts the development of students as informed citizens.

Most importantly, students cannot learn and grow intellectually without the freedom to articulate their beliefs and challenge those of others. We cannot sort through controversial issues unless we are free to discuss and inquire about them from every angle. Indiana University, for example, found a student guilty of “racial harassment” for simply reading a book about the history of the Ku Klux Klan. How can we move past old racial wounds if we cannot learn about and from past injustices?

Moreover, an exposure to a diversity of beliefs enriches our education. We learn from different perspectives. Contrary opinions push us to flesh out and substantiate our own beliefs. The most famous method for intellectual inquiry, the Socratic method, is based upon this simple idea. If colleges aim to develop students as public-minded thinkers, it is essential that they promote intellectual diversity. This cannot be done unless free speech is protected and cherished on college campuses. In fact, college is one of the last places in American society in which we can regularly encounter different perspectives. The media around us is increasingly fractured, where liberals can seeks out progressive blogs and conservatives watch libertarian talk shows. As a result, radical views are amplified and dogmas go unchallenged. Protecting free speech on college campuses gives each view a voice, and promotes constructive dialogue that may not occur elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we see various administrations attempt to force conformity. The Brooklyn College School of Education sought not only to indoctrinate members of its faculty, but also to suppress criticism of the practice by a professor. A vibrant academic community cannot exist under these repressive conditions.

Today, argument and debate have been given a negative connotation. Many cringe at the thought of conflict. However, we often fail to realize that without dissent, the world would look a lot different. Famous scholars, scientists such as Galileo and activists such as Mandela were condemned for their unorthodox views. Unless their freedom to believe and speak as they wished was protected, we would be stuck in antiquated belief systems. Universities are the breeding grounds for innovation today. They cannot do so unless faculty and students can speak and think freely. Furthermore, colleges strive to develop the intellect and character of millions of Americans. They cannot do so without a respect for free speech. When colleges violate this constitutional right, they not only contradict their own purpose, but they undermine our community.